The noise is democracy

All that clanging requires diligent maintenance and occasional restoration. The Canadian Embassy and the U. S. Capitol, seen from the Newseum Washingon DC, July 2015

All that clanging requires diligent maintenance and occasional restoration.
The Canadian Embassy and the U. S. Capitol, seen from the Newseum
Washingon DC, July 2015

“Our political institutions work remarkably well. They are designed to clang against each other. The noise is democracy at work.” — Michael Novak

When I first read that quote by Novak, I couldn’t help wondering when he said it, and whether he still feels that way.  Everywhere I turn, I hear people complaining about the government. There’s a diversity of opinion about where the blame lies, but there is clear consensus about one thing: a lot needs fixing.  If only we could agree on what, and how, and when.

Ah, but that’s really the argument that Novak is making, isn’t it?  If there is a great deal of vocal disagreement, maybe that’s an indication that democracy is working.  That we feel not only the urge but the freedom to complain; that we examine our leaders again and again in the court of public opinion; that we elect all sorts of representatives who themselves have a hard time reaching agreement — maybe these are healthy signs of government that truly aspires to be “of, by and for” an increasingly diverse people?

I’m not saying it’s right to show disrespect toward our leaders, or toward anyone else whose opinions offend us.  I abhor hateful name-calling and gratuitous insults.  But constructive criticism, incisive commentary and hilarious satire are all necessary components of a society ruled by a Constitution and a Bill of Rights.

If I could, I would find a way to banish all trolls from the internet; they pollute thoughtful discussions with vicious and often illogical attacks, acting ugly seemingly for the sake of ugliness.  It makes me tend to shy away from the comment sections following any news story, particularly if the topic is controversial.  It also makes me angry that we allow the lowest common denominator to hijack reasonable argument.  Polite disagreement may sound like an oxymoron, but I believe it’s possible.

Meanwhile, with election talk already beginning to dominate the airwaves, let’s brace ourselves and get ready to see this nonstop and often irritating chatter as an inevitable by-product of the incalculable blessing of living in a free country.  I invite you to join me in resolving two things: one, I will not let all the complaining and whining and hand-wringing cause me to lose sight of how many reasons we have to feel thankful; and two, I will not become part of the problem by venting my (often reasonable) frustrations in inflammatory speech or over-reactive anger at anyone who happens to disagree with me.

Let the clanging begin!

This post was first published seven years ago today. To my knowledge, this is the first time an author of a quote I featured in a post died between the first and second publication of that post. Of course, many (maybe most) were long dead before I chose their words as the inspiration or theme of mine. But for some reason, it was a bit jarring when I checked the link to Novak’s name and found that he died in 2017. I wonder all the more whether he would still feel that way about democracy, with crime rampant and civil behavior increasingly rare, not only in government, but in the everyday settings in which we all witness rude or disrespectful words and actions. I renew the invitation to resolve the two intentions mentioned in this post. I think it’s even more important now than it was seven years ago.

The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Good morning, Julia! I appreciate and agree with your two resolutions.
    I also appreciate Novak’s quote. That does help, to consider that some degree of dissonance is normal and appropriate.
    The problem with a shouting match is that the loudest person wins, regardless of what the shouting is about. If only there were a way to balance, or compensate for, the volume. That goes for excessive volume of advertisements and visual stimulation afforded by the wealthier of the parties in any debate, too.
    I know that people have become accustomed to increasingly high-tech audio-visual entertainment, and so are drawn to the most entertaining, engaging displays, but I wish we would stop to think about the issues instead of being lead.
    I put together a PowerPoint presentation for our consulting agency, alerting folks to the most common (or popularly used) logical fallacies. Here is a website that defines several:
    The presentation was quite well received; people liked to take a break from other critical thinking, to thinking about thinking.

    • Hi Susan, I don’t have time right now to check the link, but I’ll try to get back to it. I somewhat disagree that the loudest person wins. It may appear that way, but I have known far too many quiet souls of deep conviction who walk away from such displays firmly opposed, and resolved in the opposite direction. It’s why pollsters so often get it wrong.

      • Thank you you sharing that.

  2. I also would like to note that I appreciated Lincoln’s slash you linked to the other day. His argument made reasonable points, rather than just a lot of noise (although there was clearly a little noise in it)!

Thanks for encouraging others by sharing your thoughts:

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